Understanding measles, with Dr. Rodrigue Alitanou
As part of World Immunisation Week (April 24th - 30th), Dr. Rodrigue Alitanou, ALIMA’s (The Alliance for International Medical Action) medical coordinator in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), spoke with the German broadcast station Deutsche Welle, about measles - one of the world’s most contagious diseases.
What is measles?
Measles is a highly-contagious respiratory infection, that most often leads to a full-body rash and flu-like symptoms, such as fever, runny nose and general fatigue. Caused by the Morbillivirus virus, the disease mostly affects children, but adults can also be infected.
What are the most common measles symptoms?
The main symptoms of measles are a runny nose, watery eyes, fever, fatigue and rash, as well as conjunctivitis. It should be noted that as soon as a person is infected with the measles virus, he or she can spread the disease to others - even before the first symptoms appear.
What are possible complications?
Complications can be respiratory, such as pneumonia, bronchitis or pneumonia; ocular - such as conjunctivitis or blindness; and digestive, such a diarrhea and acute dehydration. The most frequent cases observed by our teams are patients suffering from diarrhea and oral lesions, especially in children. At the moment, for example, we have 80 children with severe complications in the health centers where we work in the DRC. We had to hospitalize these patients, given their state of health, and this represents an additional workload for health centers and hospitals already facing a difficult context of limited resources.
How can you protect yourself against measles?
Transmission can occur between people infected with the virus and transmitted via droplets of saliva suspended in the air, such as when a person coughs or sneezes. To protect, it is of course necessary to take good care of already sick cases, including isolation. It is also necessary to vaccinate children.
How do you explain the spike in measles cases this year, particularly within Africa?
The main reason for the increase in measles cases is that global immunization coverage is low, especially in certain regions of Africa. To significantly reduce measles, it would be necessary to ensure global immunization coverage of more than 95%, over the next several years. However, this is not the case, and very often we are well below this level.
In Africa, the worsening situation is due in part to vaccination coverage efforts that do not keep pace with population growth. In addition, there are other factors such as conflict, displaced populations and inaccessible areas, as is the case, for example, in the country in which I am currently working with ALIMA, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in the Kasai region.
Is there an available measles vaccine?
First used in the 1960’s, a safe and effective vaccine can protect children for life against the measles virus. Vaccination remains the frontline means of prevention. If we want to reduce and eliminate measles outbreaks and disease-related deaths, it is essential to have good group immunity through high vaccination coverage.
Listen to the interview (French only)
Learn more: Infographic - 5 Things to Know About Measles
ALIMA (The Alliance for International Medical Action) is a non-governmental humanitarian medical alliance that works to provide free, high-quality medical assistance to the most vulnerable populations in emergency, conflict and outbreak zones. ALIMA currently operates in 11 African countries, assisting 2,500 people every day, 80% of whom are children under 5 years of age suffering from acute malnutrition and malaria. In 2018, ALIMA vaccinated 101,083 people.
Since April 2, an outbreak of measles in Kasai province in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been officially announced. ALIMA teams, already present in the field, quickly responded to this health emergency by receiving the first patients on April 5. Within two weeks, our teams treated 954 patients.
These activities are made possible thanks to generous funding from the European Commission's Department of Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid (ECHO).
Cover image: Nick Loomis / Simo Sougou / ALIMA